Last week, I wrote about the recent appearance of Brian Muraresku on Joe Rogan’s podcast to discuss the use of psychedelic drugs in ancient times, particularly in the mixed drink known as kykeon served to initiates during the Eleusinian Mysteries in ancient Greece. Part of their conversation revolved around the 1978 book The Road to Eleusis, whose coauthor, Carl Ruck, consulted with and advised Muraresku in his own work. This past week, I heard from Ruck, who argued that my commentary was incorrect and has asked me to retract my blog post due to the “dismay and distress” it has caused his associates. He copied the email to Muraresku.
The core of the disagreement boils down to the issue of the textual evidence for whether Alcibiades was or was not prosecuted for drinking kykeon without a license, so to speak. You can read the background in my previous blog post. Ruck made two primary points, which I will go over. The first is that he believes me wrong to connect the many types of kykeon referenced in Greek literature, from the peasant drink to the sacred drink. This is a fair point. In truth, we don’t know the composition of the various mixtures that went by that name. Kykeon refers only to “stirred” or “mixed” drinks, and many concoctions passed under that name. However, the composition of the Eleusinian kykeon is not clearly established. Scholarly opinion varies greatly. Each element of Ruck’s 1978 argument has been disputed, and I am not in a position to sit as judge. Many agree with Ruck that the Eluesinian kykeon was a psychoactive sacred potion, but many others doubt this and prefer to see it as similar to the peasant drink, on the theory that it represents the simple fruits of the Earth associated with Demeter and Persephone, the goddesses of Eleusis. No definitive evidence exists to settle the issue, only suggestive texts. Either way, Ruck’s own evidence draws from a long tradition that the Greeks mixed their drinks—wine, milk, honey, etc.—with drugs, meaning that the Eleusinian kykeon was not necessarily unique in terms of its intoxicating power.
The other element of the dispute involves the question of why Alcibiades was placed on trial. Muraresku had said it was because he drank kykeon outside of Eleusis, and I quoted Plutarch to the effect that it was because he put on a drunken parody of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Ruck wishes me to clarify that Alcibiades’ imitation of the Mysteries was not intended as a parody, taking issue with the Loeb translation of Plutarch. Where the Loeb edition says Alcibiades was accused of “mutilating other sacred images, and of making a parody of the mysteries of Eleusis in a drunken revel” he would prefer us to read “castration of other statues and of imitating the Mysteries in drunkenness.” Here, he asks us to read “imitating” as performing the act of the Mysteries unsanctioned. The key word is “ἀπομίμησις,” or “imitation,” which the Loeb translator took to imply parody, at least from the perspective of Alcibiades’ accusers. (His intention would, essentially, be irrelevant since the accusation is the important part.) Greek isn’t my best language, and I confess that I did not research the etymology and philology of ἀπομίμησις in scanning the Loeb text, which is usually quite literal. He notes that the earlier text On the Mysteries of Andocides gives a similar account in which the event is portrayed as an unsanctioned enactment of the Mysteries: “your commander, Alcibiades, has been holding celebrations of the Mysteries in a private house” (1.11, trans. K. J. Maidmen). In 1.29, we hear explicitly that the crime was “profanation” of the Mysteries and committing “offense” against the Two Goddesses.
However, in stressing this point, Ruck actually makes mine, which is that the crime wasn’t drinking kykeon per se but profaning the sacred Mysteries. Since kykeon isn’t mentioned—except by implication, in the claim that his drinking party involved drunkenness—the degree to which you think the presence of a specific drink was definitive rests on your assumptions about how essential it was to the Mysteries.
So, as best I can tell, the issue was never drinking kykeon but rather the profanation of the Mysteries.
I leave it for you to decide how much weight to give each argument.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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